MR. TAMBOURINE MAN by John Einarson

Book Reviews
MR. TAMBOURINE MAN by John Einarson
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Mar 12, 2005, 17:11

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MR. TAMBOURINE MAN: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF THE BYRDS' GENE CLARK by John Einarson; Backbeat Books, 2005

Gene Clark was lead singer for The Byrds and the group's main songwriter during its early heyday in the mid-Sixties. He left (or was kicked out, depending upon the story) after recording the phenomenally successful Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn albums. The reason, legend had it, was that he was terrified of flying and couldn't handle the demands of touring. The truth, as Einarson demonstrates in this exhaustively researched biography, was far more complex. From his earliest days in the New Christy Minstrels, through superstardom with The Byrds to his stint in country-rock pioneers Dillard and Clark, Gene Clark's life was plagued with emotional problems and chronic alcohol and substance abuse. He ultimately succumbed to his demons in 1991 at age 46 (a year after The Byrds' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Through more than a hundred interviews with family, band mates and friends, Einarson assembles a portrait of Clark that is both frustrating and heartbreaking. By all accounts, Clark possessed a natural talent for songwriting and poetry, and his output was prolific, especially during the early years. Many of The Byrds' first hits, including “She Don't Care About Time,” “Eight Miles High,” “Set You Free This Time” and “I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better” are Clark compositions. Indeed, he made considerably more money than the other Byrds at first because of publishing royalties, which created friction within the band. Einarson recounts the endless internecine power plays between Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Clark, the residue of which seems to continue to this day as the surviving Byrds compete to rewrite history in their favor. The McGuinn-compiled Byrds boxed set, for instance, released in the late Eighties, conspicuously omits classic Gene Clark songs in favor of later, inferior McGuinn material.

After leaving the Byrds, Clark embarked on a solo career that was erratic and constantly hindered by his personal problems. Classic albums such as White Light and No Other were critical triumphs and commercial failures. And every time he seemed on the verge of breaking out, Clark seemed to find a way to sabotage things, retreating back into his addictions. If there was ever an artist temperamentally unsuited for the spotlight, it was Gene Clark. Fifteen years after his death, he is finally starting to get his due.

-Patrick Milliken

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